Leveling the playing field in politics, life: Q&A with Republican congressional candidate Ahmad Adnan

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Ahmad Adnan

Ahmad Adnan: “The reason Congress doesn’t have much courage right now is because the desire to get reelected or get elected is so strong and the idea of conformity is so strong, it makes people want to just go along with their party, go along with what’s being said, to give them the easiest shot of keeping their job. It’s not really a form of leadership.”

Ahmad Adnan, 43, is a longtime financial adviser based in Austin who seeks to be the Republican nominee in the November general election to succeed Bill Flores in representing Congressional District 17. He’s one of 11 Republican candidates vying for the post and arguably the most unique, not only because he is a Pakistani-born Muslim long in the United States and deeply rooted in its business sector but also, as his website makes clear, because he touts himself as an “independent thinker, centrist, country over party.” He’s also unique in that he offers plenty of ideas to address problems facing the nation, including banning donations to political campaigns to counter corruption; legalizing cannabis to greatly increase the salaries of teachers (even though this is generally a state and local issue); elimination of the estate tax; and economic-boosting infrastructure pursuits similar to those discussed by both Democrats and President Trump. Adnan is definitely a long shot in CD-17, but his ideas rate some consideration. They certainly contribute more than the weary barnyard rhetoric and bumper-sticker solutions we too often hear from political candidates.

Q    Why are you running?

A    Three reasons. I’m running because I’m mad as hell at how dysfunctional our politics and government are. No. 2, I’m running because I think I’ve got great solutions. And No. 3, I’m running because I want to ban money in politics. I think money and politics equal corruption in politics. Those are the three reasons I’m running.

Q    Tell us about yourself. Are you a native Texan? Tell us what your daddy did and that kind of thing.

A    I think the part that’s unique or worth mentioning is I’m an immigrant Muslim. Yeah. In case some of the readers are curious, I did come here legally. I am a citizen and came from Pakistan. But Central Texas is home. This is where I grew up. I graduated from Round Rock High School.

Q    You came here as a child then?

A    Yeah, yeah. The cliches that people talk about, about the American Dream — to me, that’s very true. I think of myself as an example of that. I came here with nothing. I worked extremely hard in school. I was in the talented and gifted program in grade school. I graduated from Round Rock. Then I went to university at Texas State. I graduated from Texas State summa cum laude. Then I started my career as a financial adviser.

Q    Why did you come here? What was the pull?

A    The United States is the best country in the world, and it’s the place to start fresh. So now I have my own financial advice and investment management company. I’m very happy to talk about being an example of the hope that this country offers and the opportunity that a good education and hard work provide.

Q    Yet some in the political party in which you’re running have stereotyped Muslims. Have you gotten accustomed to this? Has it gotten worse?

A    I definitely think some of the rhetoric is inappropriate. However, I think most Republicans and/or conservatives, again, they’re good people. They are very accepting and open. I don’t think they knock me for religion. I think they appreciate my background. I think they appreciate somebody coming here, working hard and making something of themselves. When people see me or talk to me, I don’t think they look at it negatively. People in politics or in leadership positions, I do think they should be cautious of demonizing certain religions, things like that. I think a message of inclusivity and acceptance is a much better way to go.

Q    You’re running as a moderate or a centrist, according to your website. Given that most Republicans in this race are running as conservatives, some even to the far right, do you think you’re even relevant in Republican politics anymore?

A    I don’t know. That’s a great question and I don’t know. Time will tell. I definitely think that it is much easier running as a conservative. Human beings are quite tribal and the pressure to conform is definitely palpable. I can see how, “Wow, it’s so much easier to just go with the crowd.” But I enjoy walking to the beat of my own drum. I care more about the solutions and doing what I think is right and helpful. If people don’t like those solutions, then they have plenty of other candidates to choose from. But I’m not here to pander. I like the idea of being straight. If they don’t like my ideas, at least they’ll respect the fact that I was straight with them and I told them these are my solutions and we can just agree to disagree. I think that’s a better way to go, and I wish more politicians did that.

Q    You’re not alone there.

A    Can I say something else? When I watch debates, or I read, or I watch interviews, or I read politicians’ answers, it has always annoyed me when you can’t tell that they’re pandering but you have a feeling like, “I think he’s just telling me what I want to hear.” So I told myself that, “Hey, when I run or if I run, then people may not want to hear that I’m a moderate, but I’m going to stay true to that.” People may not want to hear some of the solutions that I have on education, or infrastructure, or money and politics, but I’ll stay true to that, and let the cards fall where they may.

Q    Well, let me ask you an even more difficult question . Donald Trump has been a transformative figure, not only for the Republican Party but the nation. How has he made the Republican Party better, or has he?

A    Good question. I’m trying to think about how he’s made it better. I don’t know, man. I don’t know.

Q    A lot of the candidates we’ve talked with said he tells it like it is and he does what he says he’s going to do. Does that help you?

A    I don’t know how he’s made the Republican Party better. I think the annual deficit is $1.1 trillion a year. I mean, you guys can fact-check, but I think it’s close to that. [Note: The federal deficit is expected to pass $1 trillion this year and keep rising over the coming decade, the Congressional Budget Office projected this week.] That’s a record that’s bigger than what it was under Obama even during the Great Recession in 2009 and 2010, so I think that’s very bad. The trade war: I’m glad that he is bringing attention to the fact that China has been trying to steal U.S. technological secrets and has been trying to get some of our technological, intellectual property. In that way, he has helped make the Republican Party better. However, the way that the trade war has been done has been bad. The trade deficit between China is actually higher now than it was when he took office. That’s definitely a concern. And he brought up that he didn’t like money in politics when he ran, but I don’t think he’s done anything about trying to get rid of money in politics. And infrastructure is very big, education is very big, but I haven’t seen any legislation from him on that.

Q    You mentioned a plan to raise teacher salaries by making cannabis legal.

A    I want to make the starting pay for teachers $80,000 a year. Our education system is falling behind other countries’ — 31st in math, 12th in science, something along those lines. I don’t think that we will ever have the best education system unless we attract and retain the best, highest-quality teachers. To do that, we have to pay them what they’re worth.

So in order to pay for the teacher raise, I want to legalize, regulate and tax cannabis. What we do for cigarettes, that’s what I want to do for cannabis. There’s an ancillary benefit for both of the solutions. For the cannabis piece, we spend $40,000 a year to keep people locked up in prison or in jail for having whatever, a certain amount of cannabis, something like that. To me, it seems: “Why are we spending this money keeping them locked up for a nonviolent offense? We could use that money for other things that our society needs.” And then the ancillary benefit for the teacher pay is this: In other countries and societies and cultures, education is respected. Teachers are respected. In the United States, they’re really not. I think that by paying them what they’re worth, paying them $80,000 a year, it will change that cultural paradigm to where people respect the profession more, respect teachers more, and value education more. No society, no civilization is going to make any kind of progress if its education system is lagging behind other countries.

Q    Tell us of your plan to ban money from politics. How would you do that, given the Supreme Court has made it clear that donating money to candidates, even as corporations, is a form of free speech?

A    Money is speech? No, it’s not. Money is money. I want to do a full-blown piece of legislation that bans all contributions, bans lobbying. And if that would get overturned by the Supreme Court, I definitely would want a [constitutional] amendment. Absolutely. I do not think that money should be in there.

Q    How would somebody like you be able to get in his car and travel across the district or print out mailers, that kind of campaigning?

A    We should have publicly funded elections, the way the president used to be elected prior to Obama — those were publicly funded presidential elections.

Q    Where it was an option.

A    Yes. And so obviously the candidates for president, they get a lot more money. But I would want smaller amounts based on the position. Money makes it harder for regular people to actually serve. And so you get this weird cycle of primarily wealthier people or well-connected people serving rather than regular folks. And I think that disconnects government from people. I think banning money would make it easier for a regular person to run because it definitely costs them money but it’s difficult campaigning with just... there’s a lot of paperwork, fees and costs associated with it, but it’s definitely more tailored for people who have more money and are more well-connected.

Q    Beto O’Rourke made a principle of not accepting PAC money when he was running for the Senate in Texas in 2018 and he almost won. Does that sound like a good model? Or is that even too much? Basically, he nickel-and-dimed it. Does that sound like a compromise model or do you think even this kind of money would corrupt the system?

A    It’s a great question. I think that’s addressing the symptom and not the disease. Prohibiting a certain amount but still allowing a certain amount, I think, still creates the same problem that exists, which is it creates conflicts of interest with politicians to where they take care of the donors more than their voters. And so we can’t get better prescription drug prices. We can’t get a cleaner tax system. We can’t lower government spending because of the influence that [deep-pocketed donors and lobbyists] have. So even if you could accept just from regular people and not PAC money, that influence is still going to exist. So I think to address the disease, it should just be banned entirely and just have a certain dollar amount for publicly financed ones. That way regular people can actually run. That way you don’t get that conflict of interest. Most of the problems that I cite, a lot of them are caused by the money influence.

Q    You’ve suggested that a virtual-wall technology such as drones and sensors and robots and cameras rather than a physical wall might be one of the answers to border security. That places you pretty much at odds with today’s Republican Party. How would you argue your case to the traditional Republican who thinks we need a physical border wall through most of the southern border of the United States?

A    I definitely believe in securing the border. I do want to add more money to do this. And yes, I want to do that by having more border patrol agents. And yes, I want to use technology, I want to use cameras, I want to use robots, I want to use drones. Those technologies have evolved and are a lot more advanced and they’ll continue to advance. And so I think that we can implement that. And you could secure the entire border much faster than building a wall. It’s much cheaper to implement than building a wall. And then you don’t have to worry about what humans invented 10,000 years ago. It’s called a ladder.

Q    Well, these walls are going to be pretty high in some places, complete with barbed wire.

A    I want technology to help monitor the border.

Q    A virtual wall?

A    Yeah, more of a virtual one. I do want to make sure that if there are criminal elements, whether drug dealers, criminals who are trying to cross the border, they can be apprehended. I definitely believe we should embrace legal immigration. It has nothing to do with trying to keep immigrants out. I want more immigrants to come to the United States. We need to embrace it for economic reasons .

Q    Why do we need more immigrants? Some in the Republican Party — not all but some — want to cut the number of legal immigrants.

A    It’s an economic phenomenon in developed countries. As countries get wealthier, family size shrinks and so the population growth of that country slows. This is observed across human civilization. There’s two big metrics. One is productivity per worker, the other is the number of workers. To grow any economy, the amount of workers needs to be increasing. Population growth is necessary for economic growth. We should embrace legal immigration because you can move the needle on one of the two big metrics. When people talk about making America great again, a lot of times they reference the 1950s and ’60s. GDP was much better, the United States was manufacturing, the economy was growing faster. In the ’50s and ’60s, three phenomena existed: There was major population growth from both a massive amount of immigrants who came in and from the baby-boomer generation. And then there was massive infrastructure [pursued], the interstate highway system. Then there was the space race, which is the high-value research that I talk about in my proposal. Those are the three things to help any country grow — infrastructure, population growth and high-value research. We need to embrace legal immigration to help with one of those three components for economic growth. I think of immigration as a very positive thing. It’s great to have people come here, contribute, serve, pay taxes. I can’t remember how many years the Dreamers have been here, but some have been here 10, 15, almost two decades. I think that we should give them a pathway to citizenship. That way they can continue to contribute, continue to serve, continue to pay taxes.

Interview conducted by Trib editor Steve Boggs and opinion editor Bill Whitaker. It has been condensed for space and edited for clarity.

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